Monday, May 07, 2018

Tamika Mallory's Israel Rehabilitation Tour

When the controversy over antisemitism and Tamika Mallory first flared up, I noted that it had one very interesting characteristic: it wasn't about Israel. This is somewhat uncommon in left-of-center antisemitism disputes, and one could almost hear the gears grinding in Mallory's would-be defenders. So used to having "criticism of Israel isn't antisemitic" as their "get-out-of-talking-about-antisemitism-free" card, they were left almost dumbstruck.

Mallory has been notoriously resistant to any serious reckoning with antisemitic sentiment on her part. She views herself as the victim here, and so she's seemingly cast about for new avenues to antagonize her Jewish tormentors. First it was going after the ADL. Now, as part of a "fact-finding" trip to Israel, it's blaming Netanyahu for Trump's border wall and Muslim ban.
In response to this tweet, Abe Silberstein articulated a common sense of Jewish dismay.
But in some ways I think Silberstein is missing the point. Mallory isn't tweeting unaware of what Jews think about her. Rather, her goal in this Israel trip is precisely to rehabilitate her reputation -- albeit not amongst Jews.

Antisemitism, like racism, tends to take the path of least resistance down to the ground. As Paul Berman noted, while we
like to think of hatred of the Jews as a low, base sentiment that is entertained by nasty, ignorant people, wallowing in their own hatefulness. . . . normally it’s not like that. Hatred for the Jews has generally taken the form of a lofty sentiment, instead of a lowly one – a noble feeling embraced by people who believe they stand for the highest and most admirable of moral views.
If one dislikes Jews, there are many ways for that disdain to manifest. But among these diverse options, people with antisemitic views want to express those views in ways that will gain social approval -- at least in the communities they care about. Hence, we should expect that antisemitic sentiments will be systematically channeled in directions where their expression can expect to find validation and laudation. The content of those sentiments will vary from community to community. In some railing against "globalist financiers" will do the trick. In others speaking of those who "crucified Christ" will work. And of course, in still others, lambasting Zionist perfidy is the winning ticket.*

Note the argument is not that "criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic", any more than I'm saying orthodox Christian beliefs are inherently antisemitic or opposing the political preferences of wealthy billionaires is. My argument is exactly what was stated above: that in certain communities positions of this ilk provide a convenient point of discharge for antisemitic sentiments that offer up the path of least resistance. Precisely because there are perfectly valid critiques of Israel that are, on face, wholly laudable from within a progressive paradigm, a speaker harboring antipathy towards Jews and looking for a socially-acceptable vector to express them will gravitate toward that issue. A conservative speaker with the same internal sense of grievance towards Jews might pick a different path to the ground. Put another way, we should expect that if someone with progressive-inclinations harbors antisemitic sentiments (consciously or not), they'd be most likely to express them in the idiom of anti-Israel speech. Why wouldn't they? Antisemitism will always be expressed in the dominant language of the place and the time, and it is entirely predictable that people will seek to express antisemitism in ways that enhance rather than detract from their social standing.

In Mallory's case, then, the shift from Farrakhan to the ADL to Israel is a move from forms of antisemitism that encountered great resistance to that which will (again, in the relevant communities) gain plaudits. It is a rehabilitation tour because it moves her sense of grievance towards Jews out of a context where even her allies would have trouble defending her, to an arena where people in her community are quite accustomed to dismissing Jewish complaints. Even though the sequence of events for Mallory offers compelling evidence that she's at least in part motivated by a sense of antipathy against Jews, because she's now expressing her disdain in terms of anti-Israel sentiment people will ironically view further complaints about her antisemitism as weaker rather than stronger.

Finally, I want to remark on the specific content of her tweet -- claiming that Trump's anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies are cases of him following the Israeli lead -- because I think it's also "rehabilitative" in its way, and it's worth articulating why that's so. As many people have noted, there is something more than a bit absurd about the contention that American conservatives need an Israeli example to enact racist and White supremacist policies. Moreover, it ends up acting as an indirect apologia for American racism -- asserting that it is not truly homegrown but rather is a foreign disease imported from Israel. Why would Tamika Mallory find that sort of claim attractive?

I discussed a similar move when Winona LaDuke made a putative critique of America's implication in colonialist and genocidal practices by saying "we are Israel". One would think that "Israel is us" would be the more accurate label, since "even if we thought that Israel was a valid case of colonialism ... surely it isn't the paradigm case."
But note the subtle shift of responsibility here -- our misdeeds are characterized as following another's evil example. Israel stands in for our own misdeeds -- it is the platonic ideal of our own wrongs. We are not intrinsically bad, we're only bad insofar as we're "Israel". Our absolution comes when we're no longer Israel. It offers a way to maintain a sense of moral growth and possibility by externalizing the source of the sins onto another body deemed irredeemably corrupt.
There is, I suggest, a perverse form of patriotism at work here. By suggesting that American misdeeds are actually instances of a foreign (Jewish) infection, the implication is that the American body itself is not the problem. The issue is outwards, not inwards. The fundamental appeal of "the Jews are our misfortune" is that it actually allows for a sort of redemptive American narrative to emerge, and for even those most critical of contemporary American policies to lay claim to it.

One thing that is often-forgotten when talking about antisemitism, or racism, or other systemic hatreds, is that they are productive ideologies. They build things, they engender alliances, they motivate actions. Reflexive claims that antisemitism "hurts our movement" always thus struck me as far too pat -- of course it depends on how one defines the goals of the movement, but more fundamentally it overlooks the way that antisemitism can represent a genuine and attractive tool of mobilization. Given the choice between arguing against American support for the Muslim ban by articulating how it reflects fundamental malformations that are deeply-rooted in our national character, versus arguing against it by saying we've been led astray by the Jews -- it's quite plausible that the second route might be more effective than the first.

And so again, we see a form of rehabilitation here. Any organization seeking to make the sort of wide-ranging and deep-cutting critique of discriminatory American practices that the Woman's March does is going to face the inevitable charge that it is "anti-American" in some way. It is hard to counter these accusations, even though they are deeply unfair, because it's always hard to demonstrate love for a place or institution while simultaneously leveling a radical critique (something Jews with sharp objections to many Israeli policies are quite painfully aware of). So the temptation will be to cheat: the problem isn't with America, you see; the problem is with those Jews over there ruining America. One need not reject America; one need only "de-Zionise" it.

People think that when Tamika Mallory blames Israel as the source of American anti-immigrant and Islamophobic policies, she's revealing herself to be more radical than ever before. In reality, though, it is a significant step back towards the mainstream. The radical critique -- the one that it is so hard for many Americans to latch onto -- is the claim that we, America, are our own problem. We are responsible for our own decisions; our hatreds, our injustices, our wrongdoings stem from nobody but ourselves. In Richard Rorty's trenchant words: "There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves." But to the extent that problem is not in ourselves, but rather came to us from Israel -- well much of that discomfort can go away and a radical critique instantly becomes far more digestible.

Plenty of people who'd resist mightily the notion that there is something fundamentally wrong with America are entirely happy to agree that there's something fundamentally wrong with outsiders, with aliens, with others, who've insidiously managed to infect our great nation. And so I suspect that Mallory will find many willing and eager recipients of this new message. After all, it is saying nothing more than what so many have long wished to hear.

* Racism almost certainly works in the same way. People don't just want to be racist, they want to be racist in ways that earn them validation and enhanced social standing. Hence, they will flock to argumentative pathways which allow them to express hostility or disdain for racial outgroups in ways that are socially legitimate. There's a reason why so much anti-Latino sentiment now gets channeled through language about "securing the border". The issue isn't that there are no valid arguments to be had about how permissive or restrictive our immigration policy should be. The issue is that, in context, these debates are simply the most convenient forum where persons already harboring anti-Latino sentiments can discharge their antipathy with minimum social resistance. One of the primary impacts of Trumpism has been to greatly increase the number of viable social pathways for expressing racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and other bigoted sentiments -- greatly multiplying their "paths to the ground" and hence dramatically magnifying their social reach.


Ivy said...

Great piece. thank you David. You have clarified for me many of the questions raised by the controversy over anti Semitism in the Labour party here in the UK. I can see now that many people on the left here perceive expression of anti Israel statements as admirable moral views, shared by those opposing oppression, particularly oppression based on class and ethnicity (seeing Israelis as Westerners persecuting Palestinians seen as Middle Eastern peoples ) or race (white Israelis persecuting POC). I can see why Mallory and Angela Davis and others speak out against what they perceive as a race issue. However, it's worrying when they don't react when it's pointed out to them that Israel is a diverse society with populations of African Jews, Jews who are POC and non-Jews, and when those here in the UK who have made anti-Semitic statements regarding Israel don't react after being challenged. There were many features in the media this week after the recent local elections, emphasizing that the lack of action regarding anti-Semitism in the party badly hurt Labour. Hopefully this will be a catalyst for party leaders to address the issues with MPS and party members. The controversy has led to growing awareness of anti Semitic sentiments being expressed as criticism of Israel, and I hope there will be less acceptance of this as well as less tolerance of hostile and prejudicial statements about Jews.

Dan Orr said...

I don't really see any change. Ms. Mallory went after Jewish institutions vis a vis their association with Israel at the March for Racial Justice in NYC, although that was provoked. (An obviously astroturf group by the name of Zioness showed up in force.) Recently (as you mention) she went after the ADL through such an association. And she's made it clear that she will go after any Jewish institution that does not explicitly reject Zionism. Recall, she declared JVP and JFREJ as kosher for anti-racist Jews. Ms. Mallory's strategy is to make anti-racist Jews choose between Jewish institutions that have associations with Israel, past or present, and being acceptable in a wider community of anti-racist folks. Obviously many institutions, not only the ADL, that anti-racist Jews care about have these associations. The URJ and USCJ are obvious examples. There are movements of anti-racist Orthodox folks as well.

Most anti-racist Jews I've known prefer to criticize our institutions from within. For example, when Rabbi Rick Jacobs fought for the access of Jewish women at the Western Wall, he thereby legitimized Israeli control over the old city. This caused self-reflection and some consternation, but it did not cause a rejection of the URJ. Those of us who are part of URJ hope to change the institution, and discuss this particular tension, but not abandon it.

In a way this is similar to Ms. Mallory. She refuses to abandon the Nation of Islam although I believe that she rejects its stance on many issues. But she prefers to critique it internally. It is too important to abandon.

From the point of view of a progressive Jew, it appears to me that there is a difference between NOI/Farrakhan and e.g. the URJ. The URJ does not exist primarily to legitimize the exploitative policies of Israel. It appears that Farrakhan is primarily about co-opting the structure of the ideology of white supremacy for black nationalism. However, I've read all the articles disputing this point, and I'll admit there is space for reasonable disagreement.

The thing is that Ms. Mallory wants to have it both ways - she wants to allow the internal critique of the NOI while denying the same for anti-racist Jews. This is the fundamental structure of her antisemitism. I really don't see how anything has changed.

Empress Trudy said...

Under Israeli law she should have been barred entry. It's more of a danger to selectively apply a law because of 'optics'. She's essentially a racist and a terrorist, she should, under the law be prohibited entry. It's always hilarious to watch people screaming that they will never ever enter Israel unless and until it's an ash heap of Jewish remains and as soon as you agree with them and stop them from setting foot in Israel they go ballistic that their right to murder you has been infringed.